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Rep. Luis Gutiérrez & Rev. William Barber on AG Nominee Jeff Sessions’s Racist, Xenophobic Record

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On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general faced more than nine hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which he denied being a racist and tried to distance himself from Trump’s most extreme promises. As he faced questions, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was repeatedly disrupted by protesters who chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A.!” Sessions has previously opposed legislation that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants, questioned if the Constitution guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the United States, and declared same-sex marriage a threat to American culture. He also voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, opposed the Voting Rights Act and has a history of making racist comments. We get response from Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois), co-chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and from Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and Moral Mondays leader.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, faced more than nine hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which he denied being a racist and tried to distance himself from Trump’s most extreme promises. The hearing was repeatedly disrupted by protesters, who chanted, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A.!” This is Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioning Sessions.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: People have fairly promptly tried to label you as a racist or a bigot or whatever you want to say. How does that make you feel? And this is your chance to say something to those people.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, does not feel good.

PROTESTER: This whole fascist regime needs to be stopped before it starts!

PROTESTERS: No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A.! No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A.! No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A.!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During his two decades on Capitol Hill, Senator Sessions has opposed legislation that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants, questioned if the Constitution guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the United States, and has criticized the courts for interpreting the separation of church and state too broadly, and has declared same-sex marriage a threat to American culture. He also voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, opposed the Voting Rights Act and has a history of making racist comments, which included reportedly saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was, quote, “OK until I found out they smoked pot,” unquote. On Tuesday, Sessions described allegations of bigotry that have dogged his career as “damnably false charges.”

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology. I assisted Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center in his lawsuit that led to the successful collapse of the Klan, at least in Alabama, the seizure of their building, at least for that period of time. As Civil Rights Division attorneys have testified before the committee, I supported fully their historic cases that the Justice Department filed to advance civil rights and that I supported, including cases to desegregate schools, abolish at-large elections for cities, county commissions and school boards. These at-large elections were a mechanism used to block African-American candidates from being able to be elected to boards and commissions. It was a deliberate and part of a systemic plan to reduce the ability of African Americans to have influence in the election and governing process. I never declared the NAACP was un-American or that a civil rights attorney was a disgrace to his race. There is nothing I am more proud of than my 14 years of service in the Department of Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump for the presidency in early 2016. During Tuesday’s hearing, he was asked about the legal boundaries of the Trump administration. He said he would reject a ban on Muslim immigration and that he would enforce a 2015 law that outlawed waterboarding terrorism suspects, even though he had previously opposed the law. He was questioned by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: As a question of law, does waterboarding constitute torture?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, there was a dispute about that when we had the torture definition in our law. The Department of Justice memorandum concluded it did not necessarily prohibit that, but Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Sessions also declared he would recuse himself from any decisions on Hillary Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation. During Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions appeared to have support from moderate Republican senators like Susan Collins of Maine and Democrats like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

Today, the Senate is expected to hear from those who support and oppose his confirmation, including officials from the NAACP and ACLU—two groups Sessions reportedly once called “un-American.” Also set to testify are civil rights icon and Democratic Congressman John Lewis and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, marking the first time in Senate history a sitting senator will testify against another sitting senator for a Cabinet post during a confirmation hearing.

When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by Chicago Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois, member of the House Judiciary Committee, co-chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and from Raleigh, North Carolina, Reverend Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Bobby Darin, “Splish Splash,” here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For more on the confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump for Jeff Sessions, we are joined by two guests. From the Cannon Rotunda on Capitol Hill, we’re joined by Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, Democratic of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee and the co-chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He just released a statement saying, “Why I Will Not Be at Inauguration and Will Be Marching with Women.”

Also with us is Reverend Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and Moral Mondays leader. On Monday, he led about 500 demonstrators to the Russell Senate Office Building, where they marched through the marble hallways and delivered an anti-Sessions petition to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others. Reverend Barber is the author of Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.

Welcome, both of you, to Democracy Now!, both of you back to the show. Reverend Barber, I’d like to ask you about the protest you led against Jeff Sessions and your response now that you’ve heard some of his testimony yesterday at the Senate.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, first of all, Juan and Amy, thank you so much for having us.

Yeah, Repairers of the Breach, along with Faith in Public Life, with my good friend Reverend Jennifer Butler, and 500 clergy and impacted persons, we led a Moral Monday march to McConnell’s office, Senate Leader McConnell, asking him and all of the other senators to reject the Sessions nomination. This was the first time, we understand, that clergy have done this at this period.

We really believe it’s a moral crisis, and there’s so much camouflaging that we have to get underneath so that we can get to the truth. First of all, when we talk about Jeff Sessions, they say, “Well, he’s a Methodist.” Well, so was George Wallace. They say, “Well, he’s cordial.” Well, Southern cordiality and racial animosity are two different things altogether. They say that he’s been respectful. Well, you can be respectful—Jesse Helms had certain levels of respect, but he was very racist in his policies.

What we look at now is where Sessions has stood on the issues. And let me point out what I mean by that. First of all, he has shown a contempt for the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, which says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged.” And then Section 2 says, “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article.” For 1,296 days, Senator Sessions has been a part of the group that has kept the Congress from enforcing the 15th Amendment by fixing Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. He has a contempt for the 15th Amendment. He has called the Voting Rights Act “an intrusive piece of legislation.” That is the legislation that people died for. He says it is intrusive. In other words, it’s a bother. He has stood against voting rights. He has applauded the Shelby decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, and has done nothing in the Congress to fix it. Even on yesterday, he said he did not know anything about the biggest voter suppression case in the country right now, the North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, where the court said that North Carolina engaged in intentional racial discrimination, things they could not have done if Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was enforced.

So, here’s the question for America: If Sessions has a contempt for the 15th Amendment as a senator, if he has tried to undermine the 15th Amendment as a senator, then why would you want him to be the attorney general, who is required to enforce the 15th Amendment? That’s the kind of racism that we’re talking about. Racism in America is not just about a white supremacist yelling the N-word or wearing robes or burning crosses. Racism is perpetrated through systems of power that consistently privilege white people while discriminating against people of color and other Americans. And when you look at his record on this, he has a contempt for the 15th Amendment, for the protection of voting rights, and has applauded false claims about voter fraud and real realities of voter suppression, that is greater than things we’ve seen since the days of Jim Crow.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago, today we’re going to see one of your colleagues in the House, John Lewis, as well as Senator Cory Booker, making a historic first-ever testimony by a senator against one of his colleagues on a presidential nomination. Your concerns about Jeff Sessions, and your reaction to his testimony yesterday?

REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, I have a grave concern. I have a grave concern, beginning with his xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric and positions with the most extreme sectors, not only in the Senate, but across this country. I’m worried about 750,000 young men and women who have achieved legality in this country through President Obama’s executive order, which he will threaten. He can easily threaten them. He can revoke that as the attorney general. Simply, somebody sues, and he says, “I agree,” which is exactly his attitude. He doesn’t believe in immigration. He’ll say, “Well, I just want to take care of the illegal immigrants.” No, he doesn’t believe in immigration, period. So, as a man born in 1953, when “separate but equal” was the law of the land when I was born, I see in Jeff Sessions a man who wants black people to be quiet, immigrants to be silent and invisible, women back in the kitchen and gays in the closet. And there is a particular statement of the senator in a position to back up. So, if that’s the America you want to make great again, then Jeff Sessions is your guy.

And so, I am very concerned about the progress that we have made, especially as the reverend has talked about the Voting Rights Act. Look, Juan, you and I would not be having this conversation. I would not have been elected to the Congress of the United States, had it not been for the brave men and women in America leading the civil rights movement that gave us a Civil Rights Act, a Voting Rights Act, which finally allowed me to be in Congress. And I’m going to raise my voice, because that is the tradition that I feel a responsibility to and a debt to. Latinos get to speak today, because black people were murdered and lynched, and their churches were burned, and others became allies of theirs in a great civil rights movement. We cannot simply turn our backs on that history, that great history of our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the letter that was just released of Coretta Scott King. On Tuesday, The Washington Post published a nine-page letter written by King in 1986 opposing Jeff Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship. You know, this is very significant, nominated by Reagan. Ultimately, the Senate Judiciary Committee—it would only be Sessions and, I think, over the past 50 years from that point, one other person had not been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee for a judgeship. According to BuzzFeed News, which first reported the letter’s existence, it was never entered in the Congressional Record by then-Judiciary Committee Chair Strom Thurmond. King’s opposition, however, proved critical to the argument against Sessions’ confirmation.

In the letter, she cites Sessions’ attempted prosecution of three black civil rights workers in Marion, Alabama, for voter fraud. Coretta Scott King writes, “When the circumstances and facts … are analyzed, it becomes clear that the motivation was political, and the result frightening—the wide-scale chill of the exercise of the ballot for blacks, who suffered so much to receive that right in the first place. Therefore, it is my strongly-held view that the appointment of Jefferson Sessions to the federal bench would irreparably damage the work of my husband. ”

King also writes, “The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods. … I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made … toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.” Again, that a letter that Strom Thurmond did not enter into the Congressional Record, but that Coretta Scott King wrote opposing Sessions’ U.S. attorney—judgeship, rather, nomination in 1986.

I’m sure you know the case, Reverend Barber, of the Marion Three very well, close allies of Dr. King, the Turners, gone after by the U.S. attorney at the time, Jeff Sessions, in Alabama. Ultimately, they were acquitted.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: I do. And there are several things that were so striking and hypocritical at that hearing yesterday. You know, when Senator Sessions said, you know, he denounced the Klan, you know, those are kind of common phrases to say, you know, “I did this”—he said he didn’t call the NAACP “un-American.” Basically, he’s saying, “I did these things. You all heard it. But you didn’t really hear what you heard or see what you saw.” In essence, he’s calling Coretta Scott King a liar. He’s saying the NAACP and our people are liars. He’s even saying that Ms. Turner is a liar. You know, she’s still alive. And just the other day, she says, “I know Jeff Sessions. The leopard has not changed his spots.” She said that he tried to put her and her husband in jail for 250 years. That’s the same length of time that black people were enslaved in this country. And it was all over a fraudulent case. He claims to have worked on cases, but there’s a Washington Post article that says he really didn’t work on those cases.

So what we have here is someone who has a clear record. He has a record in the past. He never repented of it. Now, he may say he—he may suggest they weren’t his ideas, but he’s never repented of it and become an advocate for voting rights and a staunch supporter of the 15th Amendment. If anything, he has hardened over the years and become more shrewd over the years. I keep saying this constantly, Amy, to people: This Congress, for 1,296 days today, has refused to do its job. In essence, you’ve had what Dr. King called interposition and nullification in the Congress, refusing to fix the 15th Amendment. That, in itself, alone, should be a disqualifier for someone who’s being asked to lead the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.

However, there’s something else. Senator Sessions has stood against legislation that would help vulnerable Muslim Americans, that would help the LGBT community. He has voted against immigrant rights and the rights of refugees. He has even voted against the women’s act, Violence Against Women Act. And he voted against a program that would help minorities, African Americans and women have access to federal contracts, which means he’s not only in contempt—he has a contempt for the 15th Amendment, he has a contempt for the 14th Amendment, which—I mean, excuse me, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says you cannot discriminate in any programs that receive federal money. So, he has a contempt for the 15th Amendment. He has shown contempt for the 14th Amendment, which says equal protection under the law shall be provided to all people, regardless of their race, their color, their creed, their sexuality. He’s shown a contempt for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VI. So, someone who has shown a contempt for these things cannot be put in office to be the law enforcement officer over these things. It’s like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.


REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: I mean, I’d like to just put it in a little bit of a personal perspective. So, the America that my daughters live in is a different America than the one that their mom and their grandmother. He wants to take Roe v. Wade and eliminate it. This is—I mean, when you take the totality of the man, let’s remember, when they say they want to make America great again, they want to go back to a time in which women and gays and Latinos were simply quiet and shut out of the process. And as the reverend has so articulately presented, it is very clear that that’s. And let me just say this so that we’re clear: When Donald Trump called for a ban and a registry on Muslims, he was the first one to stand up, the first senator and the first member of the Republican Party to stand up, support and applaud and endorse Donald Trump for president of the United States. So, he can say what he wants today, but I think we should judge him on his actions of yesterday.

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Rep. Luis Gutiérrez on Why He Will Boycott Trump Inauguration & Will Instead Join Women’s March

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